A Conversation With Espen Rekdal

A Conversation With… ESPEN REKDAL - page 2


Reef scene, Norway. Photo: Espen Rekdal.

Alex: I have always admired your lighting and I’d like to talk in detail about how you make it work. A lot of photographers think that using strobes is just about getting some light on the subject and not getting any backscatter. Job done. I feel that you pay a huge attention to the quality of the light, it is not just about quantity. Is there any underlying philosophy to your wide angle lighting?
Espen: There is a fine line between creating shadows and creating depth and perspective. If you are too uneven with your lighting you get harsh shadows that deteriorate the photo, unless you are using that as an effect.
Alex: For me, worse than the strong shadows are strong highlights, because they pull the eye more. Your eye goes straight to it and it destroys the composition.
Espen: This picture (Espen points at his laptop, which from memory is the image above) has shadows, which really irritate me.
Alex: I disagree, those are tiny, they give texture and shape.
Espen: I think that these are too harsh. But if you get shadows in small places, that three-dimensionalizes things.
Alex: To go back a step, lighting choices start with strobe choices. And like me you are a big fan of using large powerful, European strobes with wide diameter circular flash tubes…
Espen: … and very nice coverage. I think that the coverage is so important for you to be able to position the strobes to use the light creatively. If you use narrow beam strobes you are so limited in how you can angle them, because you risk not hitting the subject, which limits where you can put the light. You could pull them back, but then you are loosing power.
Alex: You use the same two strobes that I use (Subtronic and Inon). To summarise for those who’ll read this, I choose to use the Subtronics for all my wide angle in reasonable to good visibility, and I use my Inons for macro in any conditions. Also I prefer my Inons for wide angle in bad viz because I find the narrower beam easier to control to eliminate backscatter. Have you ever tried shooting wide angle with your Inons?
Espen: Yes, but I find myself disappointed. Of course the Subtronics are difficult to travel with, so I can’t always take them. But for competitions always.
Alex: That style of strobe has a quality of light that is very hard to replicate. I have built softboxes for my Inons, which can replicate the softness and coverage of the Subtronics, but you loose a lot of power, spreading the light. But that is for when I can’t travel with the Subtronics for weight.
Espen: My choice of Inons was actually by coincidence. I have always been a fan of Ikelite strobes for the light. I used them since ’96 and especially their Substrobe 50s, the small ones. I had six of those and I would travel with two film systems both rigged with two of those strobes, with two strobes as spares. And for longer trips I would need to take spare circuit boards.
Alex: I like light of their wide angle strobes too.


Norwegian lobster in sea pen forest, Norway. Photo: Espen Rekdal.

Espen: I have used the Ikelite 200s and 100s previously. But again mine were prone to failures and living in Europe and not the United States it was difficult to get them repaired.
Anyway, at the time I switched to digital Ikelite could not give me a strobe that would TTL, neither could Inon, but they had more manual powers. The Ikelite 51 was not out yet. So I bought the Inons and found that although the Sea & Sea TTL converter is not supposed to work with the D2X, it was actually the most reliable model of camera to use it with. Which suited me perfectly.
Alex: I don’t shoot TTL, mainly because I don’t own a TTL converter, but you are a big fan of it for macro?
Espen: Yeah. I get very reliable exposures straight from the camera. But don’t get me wrong, I post process images, my aim is the finished product.
Alex: I agree that is just a realist’s view on modern photography. We all shot film, we all got great slides, but the world has changed now and there is no point putting your head in the sand.
Espen: And I think that post processing is a big part of photography today.
Shanay (Espen’s wife): Even before because after you have scanned you still had to adjust the files for printing.
Alex: That’s true. In so many books in the pure slide days, so much Photoshop was done by the printers with the excuse “just to make it good for printing”. “We’ll take that diver out, just to make it good for printing!”
Espen: Ha ha. Or to make that headline fit.
Alex: Tauchen moved a diver on one of my shots for a cover. It is not a particularly great picture, but it is very suitable cover and it has been on lots of magazines, so I often use it in talks, so its fun to point it out.
Espen: Where were we? Exposures. In the competitions I am a big fan of histograms, I can see my exposure is correct and I don’t get any surprises. When using the TTL converter I can check the histogram and if it is too much one way or the other I can adjust it for that subject.
Alex: But actually it doesn’t need much adjusting?
Espen: No. It is important to get exposures correct, otherwise it will begin to tear at the quality of the final picture. So I always try and optimise the exposure for the best RAW file. There is always the balance between the ambient and reflected light from the flash, and sometimes my meter can come back with weird values.
Alex: Do you spot meter for blues?
Espen: No, normally I just look at the light meter on matrix and compensate, sometimes I have to go as far as –2 or –2.5.
Alex: Interestingly the newer cameras are different. Actually this is not interesting, this is really boring techie stuff, but when you go to the D3 or D700 you do not need as much underexposure to get a good blue on matrix metering. So instead of dialling in –1.7 or so, you can shoot the same blues at say –0.3 or even 0 EV. I can only assume that there is an underwater reference image in the software.
Espen: The advantage of using an old camera is that you can always blame the camera if you don’t win in the competition!
Alex: Ha ha. And if you do win, well, “its an old camera, so it is all me!”


Norway under ice. Photo: Espen Rekdal.

Espen: Ha ha. I am currently looking for new strobes because next year I am changing my camera. Hopefully Nikon will come out with a DX camera, say a D400 in the 15-16 megapixel range. That would be perfect.
Alex: You’d prefer to stick to DX than go to full frame?
Espen: Yes, I can only see myself using full frame in very few situations. Fast action, low light scenes. But then I will just borrow one.
Alex: I would strongly consider going back to DX too, with a camera like that. To finish off on strobes, you like wide beam, soft light, good coverage for wide angle. Anything else?
Espen: I’d rather under expose a bit on the strobes. People tend to overshoot on the strobes.
Alex: Too much light. It’s a mistake I make.
Espen: Because I find that this makes the gradation between flash light and ambient light a bit more natural.
Alex: I think that the soft light makes such a difference too, is this respect. So strobe positioning?
Espen: A lot of people laugh at me when I arrive with my long, long strobe arms. They are heavy, they are bulky, tough to travel with and not always easy to work with underwater, but they give you more options when it comes to positioning the light. It is important to vary your light. It is not that flat light is the optimum goal, you need a balance. Sometimes I want my strobes really far back, sometimes I want them on the port. Long arms allow both. It depends on the situation.
The long arms give the option to pull them way back, or put them both on the left or right, or put them on the long or the short side of the frame, which will also give different effects. You don’t want to limit yourself, you want to be able to put them wherever you need. And that means long arms.
Alex: I also think that you are someone who thinks quite originally on these things. You work out what you want and then how to do it, rather than just doing what others do. For example with your macro bracket, which is a ring that mounts onto your port, so you can mount your strobes and your TTL converter there.
Espen: …but the big advantage is that it rotates. So it is less than a second to adjust them. If you have a crack in the rock and your are shooting macro you can put the strobes in the crack and then tilt the camera to the orientation you want and fire, without moving the strobes each time. But it does restrict me, because I can’t move my strobes out from my macro port very much.
Alex: I see on your Inons that you shoot them without diffusers for macro, well it looks like there is a very weak diffuser on there with the warming gels?
Espen: Actually I think it is just opaque because of the salt crystals! I use a slighting warming filter on the Inons because I was finding them a little too cold for macro. And I would probably warm them even more for wide angle, down to about 4300K. The filters on them now take them to about 4800K, no big secret there.
Alex: I think that is a good area for most people. Warm them further than that and the cameras can get a bit confused on Auto white balance. I find if the water is a greeny-blue and I shoot very warm strobes the camera seems to panic and add too much magenta. It is not an issue when shooting with a manual Kelvin white balance, but not everyone wants to do that.
Espen: I always shoot in manual Kelvin white balance because I want the colour consistent in my shots.
Alex: I do much of the time, but I will shoot Auto in less controlled conditions, for example where camera to subject distances might be unpredictable, such as with more active subjects.
OK, to move onto techniques, you are a big fisheye fan, but unlike many underwater photographers you often don’t try and hide the barrel distortion of the lens, but use it creatively.
Espen: I like circles. Bent horizons, I use that a lot as a signature in my work.
Alex: That’s true. One theory I have is that many photographers find these specific visual elements in their work because of where they learned to shoot or shoot most often. And then when they travel they look for these same elements and continue to incorporate them in their work. The Norwegian fjords have strong currents, but often flat protected waters, suited to splits, Snell’s window or reflection shots, and the exposure different between the sky and dark green waters in pronounced, encouraging one to play with the shapes of Snell’s window.
Espen: It’s that, but also in Norway you have to get so close because the water is not always clear. So distortion comes naturally. But it can also help make an interesting composition: if I have a circular shaped subject in the photo, I can then create another circle with the surface.


Jellyfish in inner space. Photo: Espen Rekdal.

Alex: Its repeating patterns, repeating shapes, which make for powerful compositions.
Espen: Exactly.
Alex: You’re a big fan of colour too.
Espen: I like colour when I can find it. You are trying to find colour, you are trying to find shapes, to use as a powerful primary subject. And I like the diver to be like a visitor or a peripheral subject in the composition. I am not selling dive equipment. I’ll leave those photos for others.
Alex: Thank you.
Both: Ha ha ha.
Alex: Another aspect I like in your photography, is despite being a marine biologist you don’t shoot particularly scientifically. You cover behaviours, but your images must work visually too. How do you get the balance?
Espen: There are a lot of behaviour shots where the pictures don’t turn out beautiful. In which case I toss them. In the whole package isn’t there, it is not a picture. The first priority is that it has to be a technically well-packaged picture. If the behaviour is there, then that is a bonus, but it is not the most important criterion.
There are many opinions on what is photography and how to show things. I am a very technical guy. If a picture doesn’t have a technical quality then it isn’t a good picture.
Alex: I don’t think it is a big issue for editorial, but I do think it is essential in a competition. In an “underwater photography competition”, for me, the photographer has to show a good ability at underwater photography.
Espen: A lot of people get too caught up in new ideas, rather than actual images.
Alex: It is a mistake I see in my own work. I get excited about trying something new and get so focused on trying to make it work, that I forget that the all that matters is the end result. Not how I get there.

Continued on page 3